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Monday, May 20, 2024

A student-run restaurant brings tacos to campus

Ajani Wilson ’24.5 prepares tacos for “Side Pocket.”
Ajani Wilson ’24.5 prepares tacos for “Side Pocket.”

The mural-covered walls of the Gamut Room have been the setting for many a musical performance, student-band concert or Wednesday Open Mic Party (WOMP) set. But now, the space is home to a new venture: a late-night taco business.

Ajani Wilson ’24.5 and Jonah Roberts ’24 founded their taco stand “Side Pocket” this past November. The team sells their tacos most Friday nights from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. in the Gamut Room.

Wilson was inspired to start the business after a trip to California last year where he tried street tacos for the first time. To learn more, he watched YouTube videos about the street food scene in Mexico and how street tacos are made. After that, Wilson was hooked.

Last summer, while in Washington, D.C., Wilson hosted several events where he served tacos to people in need — giving out 140 meals in one day as part of his work running a nonprofit where he cooks food for the homeless.

He then brought his newfound passion to Middlebury.

“I made [birria tacos] for my friends, and they were joking around saying I should start a food truck,” Wilson said. Wilson and Roberts then worked with the Innovation Hub and Executive Director of Food Service Operations Dan Detora.

Side Pocket currently sells birria and honey-lime sweet potato tacos for $3.50 and $3 per taco, as well as plantains, red beans and rice, birria and regular fries.

“I am really good with meats, but not everyone eats meat, so I defaulted to my friend Jonah [Roberts], who is a vegetarian, who came up with the honey-lime sweet potato option, and red beans and rice is something I’ve grown up with,” Wilson said. “For the vegan options, we have plantains and fries.”

But the most popular menu item by far is the birria tacos, made of slow-cooked meat in a pan fried tortilla.

“I like the color, I like the taste, and the story of how it originally came to be in Mexico,” Wilson said.

Wilson spends between 20 to 25 hours a week preparing to serve tacos — which includes picking up ingredients, slow-cooking the meat in Proctor Dining Hall and preparing the toppings and sauces.

Side Pocket is totally self-funded, although it currently has a small margin of profit.

“The profits are slim because food is so expensive right now,” Wilson said. “I pay the people that work for me, but I haven’t been able to pay myself, so I am trying to figure out a way to keep going.”

Wilson estimates that he sells 300–450 tacos per night, serving roughly 150–200 patrons. Most weeks they sell out by 12 a.m.

The tacos have been a hit so far, and Wilson hopes to make the business’ schedule more regular, but he has run into some challenges.

“Our goal is to do it every week, but it depends on sales and equipment working… since I am doing everything on my own, it’s difficult,” Wilson said.

The team ran into issues over J-Term when the outlets in the Gamut room blew out. Wilson noted that they need restaurant-grade outlets to keep up with the demand.

Tristian Allard ’26, who was a first-time customer of Side Pocket, ordered the birria and fries combo last Friday. “I was looking for a late night snack, but I didn’t want the Grille, so I decided to come here and try this, and it was worth it,” Allerd said.

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Other customers commented on the scene surrounding the taco stand.

“It’s a great atmosphere, and I really like it, and I’m glad it’s a thing,” Ian Bolton ’25, a returning customer, said.

“Everyone is so friendly, I’ll have to come here again,” Allard said.

Side Pocket plans to work with Dining Services to open a food truck sometime this spring.

“Overwhelmingly people love the flavor, the music, what’s on the menu. Feedback has been really good. I love serving people and making people smile with the food, that’s why I do it,” Wilson said. “All the people who come get the tacos, thank you for coming out.”

The Side Pocket team posts updates and menus on their Instagram account, @middleburysidepocket.

Lily Jones

Lily Jones ’23 is an online editor and senior writer.

She previously served as a Senior News Writer and SGA Correspondent.

Jones is double majoring in Philosophy and Political Science. She  also is an intern for the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs and on the  ultimate frisbee team.